6 Signs it's Time to Part Ways with a Long Time Office Employee

Letting Go of Long Term Office Employees

The Overdues

One of the first things I notice soon after I begin a new HR gig is the long time employee(s) who probably should no longer be working for that particular business. These individuals usually stick out for me and it's likely because after providing services to over 45 businesses, each and every one had at least one of these individuals on board when I arrived.

Let's call these individuals the Overdues. 

What Overdues ARE NOT

I want to be very clear that Overdues ARE NOT long term employees who continue to provide value to your business and who represent the vast majority of long term employees. Long term employees have deep knowledge about your products, your systems, your business, its history, and its nuances that make these individuals extremely valuable.

Overdues are employees who represent a specific subset of C players in your workforce. They are different from other C players in your company because they're associated with deeply-rooted emotions that are difficult to override.

Here are some signs that you're wise to pay attention and develop a strategy for exiting a long time employee who may be long overdue for parting ways with your company.

6 Signs it's time to Part Ways with a Long Time Office Employee

If you're honest, you know who they are. Your employees know who they are.  And chances are, your customers and suppliers know who they are.  Overdues may exhibit the following common traits: 

1.  Obsolete Skills

Overdues are often noticeably stale in their skill set. It's always shocking how little training, if any, Overdues have received during their tenure. They often have little if any knowledge of current best practices and poor knowledge of systems.  They only know what they’ve learned at your company and have continued with those systems - sometimes for decades. 

  • Haven't taken responsibility for their career or training path.
  • Little, if any curiosity about their industry or profession. Don't seek out new information.
  • Overdues usually don't network or have external go-tos or mentors to help work out their job challenges.
  • Long calculator paper rolls can be seen cascading over a desk.
  • Tentative and painfully slow keyboard typing.  In 2019, that unequivocally results in poor productivity.
  • Rare engagement or replies to digital communication.  Strong preference for using the phone or engaging in in-person conversations. 
  • Unfamiliar and tentative with basic technology including Windows for PC and use of a mouse or mouse pad. 
  • Preference for paper over digital as indicated by the mounds of paper decorating their desks.
  • Undermining change, new or progressive initiatives, and new hires who bring their ideas (and skills) with them. Fierce champions of old systems and the familiar. The implication is often: “We’ve always done it that way”.

Competent staff typically want to work with competent staff and find it difficult to reason and collaborate with an Overdue.  The situation is made even worse when an Overdue manages and trains other employees.

2.  Lack of Feedback

Overdues are notorious for being the victims of silent airwaves.  If you venture into their HR files, you'll rarely find a performance review or any type of constructive feedback, performance improvement or training plan. 

If the Overdue's current manager is also a long time employee,.. well... the Overdue became an Overdue as a result of the manager's either soft or non-existent approach to performance management. Chances are that a pint and a slap on the back counted as the annual performance review. 

New managers tasked with managing Overdues find it nearly impossible to provide never-before-heard feedback after a decade(s) of receiving only accolades for their fierce loyalty. 

3.  The Sacred Cow

I've noticed that Overdues always have one thing in common. They have a staunch supporter and protector sitting in senior management or the executive office.  A few reasons for this may be:

  • The Overdue may have deduced long ago that they need a supporter and often show devotion to a chosen party with "I agree," "That was brilliant," "Let me do that for you," "Love your shoes," relying on ingratiation and flattery instead of talent, skills and results to curry favor with authority in the workplace or anyone else with the power to help or hurt; or
  • Someone in authority has a long standing relationship with the Overdue that blinds them to the business reality and deems the Overdue untouchable. The supporter is often blinded by the inflated business value of the Overdue's devotion and loyalty to the company and the supporter - often cemented in times of crisis when other employees may have defected.  To manage, let alone terminate is seen as the ultimate betrayal by the supporter. 
    The supporter may also have an inflated view of the Overdue's skills and value and sees the Overdue's experience and history with the company as indispensable. They can't imagine the business surviving without them.  

Consider that the 17th manager to inherit the Overdue isn't equipped to embark on the admittedly difficult task of terminating a long time employee - particularly one who has a protector in a position of power.  

4.  Overpaid & Overtitled

Overdues by nature may be hard working, caring, and fiercely loyal individuals who at one point may have been positive, confident and exceeded performance expectations. They often received and continue to receive above market pay increases for reasons that include surrendering to the Overdues repeated claims of being overworked, and rewarding loyalty and tenure while overlooking the business case that supports red circling their salaries. (Also consider that Overdues often have 5+ weeks of vacation which equates to 10% of annual salary and excludes funding of the Severance Jar.)  

The end result is gross misalignment to internal and external wages.  The cold hard business truth is that your company could, in many cases hire 1.5 qualified and trained headcount for the annual expense of one Overdue which would result in higher productivity that impacts your bottom line.

Overdues' titles are also often grossly inflated to reward them for their tenure but doesn't correlate with their value and skills or the relative value and skills of other employees.  It's not uncommon to see a long term employee with a Controller title when the individual hasn't caught up to the modern skills and best practices of a market-competent Accounting Clerk.

5.  Fear

Overdues are usually keenly aware of their dwindling value and have already self-diagnosed the reality of their situation and often feel threatened.  They're painfully aware that the world around them is changing.  Change often creates fear for the Overdue which perpetuates negative behaviour  experienced by staff who have to work with them.   This may include: 

  • Hoarding of information. 
  • Deliberate or indeliberate sabotage of new initiatives.
  • Defensive when questioned or having to justify their processes.  At times, retaliatory. 
  • Often see themselves as sacrificing for the company and putting it first. Work long hours and weekends even though their tasks could often be completed in half the time if their skills were appropriate for the position.
  • Continuously claiming they are overworked.  Often too busy to attend meetings. 
  • Critical of co-workers who have a life and don't put in extra hours.  Overdues are often time keepers of other employees.
  • May stick in pods with other Overdues who band together for support fostering negativity that has a significant impact on morale and culture. Often seen in the lunchroom separated from the rest of the staff.  
  • Overdues often wield their sacred cow power - either overtly or covertly.
  • Often not team players.

6.  Toxic

While the Overdue may show agreement with the ever-changing direction and leadership of the company when in the presence of their supporter, their body language, energy, attitude and actions say otherwise and is usually experienced by other staff or change agents.  

Simply put, Overdues are often toxic.  

You Decide

This post is not about talking you into firing your long tern employees. It's meant to be food for thought and in some cases "permission" to exit a C player, even if they have been fiercely loyal and devoted to your company for decades.

It's also about doing the right thing for your business, the people who work with the Overdue, and the Overdue themselves.

When an employee has been with you for a significant period of time, has been a mediocre-at-best performer or their skills have been allowed to get stale without feedback or training, coming in at year 15 with a performance improvement plan is unreasonable, arguably constructive dismissal, and a long shot for success.  

At this point, management may have to take responsibility for the silent airwaves of the past and eat the costs of avoiding past corrective action.  We call that the Severance Jar which should be funded monthly if you're not exiting or coaching your C Players, including your Overdues.   

Harsh? I don't think so. I believe it's unfair to keep them on board.  It's no fun being an Overdue. Daily reminders that your skills aren't up to snuff and that you can't keep up with technology and changes is scary and unnerving.  Give them the opportunity to retire or begin a new career with some severance under their belts. 

I will also say that a high percentage of Overdues are relieved when you part ways with them. Some even say "what took you so long?" Some are absolutely waiting for you to offer them an exit package. 

If you decide to exit an Overdue, terminate them fairly and with dignity. Odds are that management (you) must take ultimate responsibility for the position these employees find themselves in.  

Or, you can always go in with eyes wide open after you've read this article and determine that status quo shall remain.  That the benefit of the loyalty exhibited by the Overdue during their tenure outweighs the additional costs. 

I will always support that decision. As long as you're not remaining with the status quo out of fear of the "conversation", and you are or have the blessing of a major shareholder of the company - i.e. you're not spending someone else's money with a decision that ultimately affects someone else's bottom line.

Ariane Laird Vancouver

Ariane Laird is CEO & Founder of ConnectsUs HR, a company that provides tools & resources to quickly set up a Human Resources department.  
You can contact her directly from the Inquiry Type drop down menu.